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Moralistic Therapeutic Deists

August 31st, 2010

I know it’s a bit of a mouthful, but moralistic therapeutic deists is the term that’s being used to describe many young people growing up in evangelical churches in the United States. It’s highlighted in a recent study by Kenda Creasy Dean, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, who says that the religion of many American teens is actually “fake Christian”.

The report says that if you’re the parent of a Christian teenager your child may be following a “mutant” form of Christianity, and you may be responsible. Dean says more American teenagers are embracing what she calls “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Translation: It’s a watered-down faith that portrays God as a “divine therapist” whose chief goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.

As many churches start their “autumn and winter’s work” especially with youth organisations, this report makes us think again about what kind of beliefs we are actually teaching our children and young people.

Moralistic therapeutic deism was first coined by author Christian Smith of the University of Notre Dame to describe the common religious beliefs among American youth. It was reported in 2005 his book, Soul Searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. The research project, entitled the National Study of Youth and Religion, was funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. It found that many young people believed in several moral statutes not exclusive to any of the major world religions:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

These points of belief were compiled from interviews with approximately 3,000 young teenagers. The authors say the system is “moralistic” because it “is about inculcating a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.” The authors describe the system as being “about providing therapeutic benefits to its adherent” as opposed to being about things like “repentance from sin, of keeping the Sabbath, of living as a servant of a sovereign divine, of steadfastly saying one’s prayers, of faithfully observing high holy days, of building character through suffering….”

And last, the authors say it is “about belief in a particular kind of God: one who exists, created the world, and defines our general moral order, but not one who is particularly personally involved in one’s affairs–especially affairs in which one would prefer not to have God involved.” Although a God that is available to intercede in our lives is classically theistic, the authors choose to call this a form of Deism. They say that “the Deism here is revised from its classical eighteenth-century version by the therapeutic qualifier, making the distant God selectively available for taking care of needs.” It views God as “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he’s always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.”

The authors believe that “a significant part of Christianity in the United States is actually only tenuously Christian in any sense that is seriously connected to the actual historical Christian tradition, but has rather substantially morphed into Christianity’s misbegotten stepcousin, Christian Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

It seems that whatever else we communicate to our young people, we need to ensure that they understand the Gospel of grace. We are sinners. We need a Saviour. We cannot be our own saviours by our own performance. And out of love and gratitude to the One who is our Saviour and Lord, we march to the beat of his drum, not the rhythms of this world.

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